Florida’s top medical official is once again under fire for his stance on COVID-19 safety measures—this time for claiming a face mask limits his ability to communicate.
Amid controversy over his refusal to wear a mask in a meeting last week with state Sen. Tina Polsky, Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo insisted in a Tuesday statement his decision to flout pandemic safety measures—despite the politician indicating she was sick—stemmed from his inability to “communicate clearly and effectively” with his face covered.
“Having a conversation with someone while wearing a mask is not something I find productive, especially when other options exist,” Ladapo said. “It is important to me to communicate clearly and effectively with people. I can’t do that when half of my face is covered.”
The statement, which did not include an apology to the ailing senator even as it did express sympathy for her since-revealed breast cancer diagnosis, sparked furious backlash—and fresh calls for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to rescind his nomination of the vaccine-skeptical medical professional.
“You’re supposed to be the leading medical expert for the State… and this letter is on brand for who you have presented yourself to be—political. We don’t need another distraction, we need a doctor,” state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D-West Park) tweeted on Tuesday. “I have supported the Gov other appt, but won’t support this one.
Dr. Jennifer Gunter, a Bay Area physician board certified in OB/GYN and activist who has written for The Daily Beast, also called out Ladapo for claiming he can’t speak in a mask—when wearing one can be a daily practice as a professional physician.
“We surgeons manage to have conversations while wearing a surgical mask. As do anesthesiologists and OR nurses and scrub techs and the ECMO teams etc,” Gunter mused on Twitter. “Should we give up masks in the OR?”
In an interview, Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a specialist in infectious diseases, insisted that it is, in fact, perfectly feasible to communicate with a mask—something most people know 20 months into a pandemic.
“There are transparent masks available for situations when communication is difficult,” Adalja told The Daily Beast, adding, “With patients that are hard of hearing it can sometimes be a difficulty, but it is rare.”
According to Polsky (D-Boca Raton), the Oct. 20 meeting began after Ladapo had requested they discuss his confirmation in the state Senate—he is currently serving without confirmation—after being appointed last month. When he arrived at her Tallahassee office with two aides, however, the group was maskless and refused face coverings that were offered to them at the door, she said.
While Polsky has admitted she did not tell the surgeon general at that time that she had been diagnosed with cancer, she did tell him she had a serious condition and asked him to wear a mask. Ladapo refused and offered to have the meeting outside, which the doctor also notes in his statement.
The senator said she refused his request to go outside and asked him to leave her office.
“I don’t want to see him sitting there as surgeon general this whole time without a proper nomination process, or his nomination should just be pulled,” Polsky told MSNBC on Monday. “This man is not fit to serve as our surgeon general. He certainly didn’t care about my health, so I don’t know how he’s going to care about the public health of 21 million Floridians.”
The incident itself spurred immediate backlash for Ladapo—from both sides of the aisle. While he did not mention Ladapo by name, state Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) released a memo in support of his Democratic colleague, stressing that “what occurred in Senator Polsky’s office was unprofessional and will not be tolerated in the Senate.”
“It shouldn't take a cancer diagnosis for people to respect each other's level of comfort with social interactions during a pandemic,” Simpson wrote.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, responding to the surgeon general’s Tuesday explanation of himself, Polsky said his “shameful excuse that he can’t communicate with a mask on is not only absurd, it is insulting.”
“It is especially insulting in that immediately following our abruptly canceled meeting, he was bragging to staff that he was ‘having fun’ arguing the point with me,” Polsky added.
The lawmaker also noted that mask use is common in the medical field, stating that “physicians, nurses, and support staff wear masks during surgery and other procedures where communicating clearly is literally a matter of life and death.” She added that Ladapo’s “outlandish notion that one cannot communicate with a mask on all but renders his qualifications as our state’s surgeon general an absurdity.”
Adalja, the Johns Hopkins scholar, added that because of Polsky’s diagnosis, “it’s important to know the vaccination status of the person involved and whether or not the person with breast cancer is receiving cytotoxic chemotherapy,” noting that “breast cancer, in and of itself, is not immunosuppressive.”
One would expect vaccination status, at least, to be crystal clear when it comes to the top medical official in a state that has seen more than its fair share of pandemic death. But this is Florida.
“I am unable to share details about the surgeon general’s private medical decisions. Just like I wouldn’t be able to tell you if anyone at the Department of Health has gotten their annual physical this year, I am not privy to such personal medical information,” a DOH spokeswoman said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast.
Ladapo’s actions—and bizarro statement–mark just the latest example of his COVID-19 safety skepticism. Among other highlights, he claimed in an April Wall Street Journal op-ed that “mandating masks may help in some settings, but masks are not the panacea officials have presented them as.”
After being appointed in September, Ladapo also suggested vaccines were somehow getting too much hype as a safety measure. “It’s been treated almost like a religion, and that’s just senseless,” he said at the time.
Ladapo also appeared with other doctors at a notorious July 2020 press conference touting the benefits of far-right favorite hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for coronavirus. Included in that group: Dr. Stella Immanuel, a woman who, in other settings, has suggested medical ailments are caused by dream-sex with demons and that alien DNA can be used in actual treatment. Dr. Simone Gold, who is now facing charges for participating in the Capital riot, was also present that day.
Just like the incident itself, Ladapo’s Tuesday statement about his meeting with Polsky was met with outrage online.
“As an academic physician in Florida who has for decades rounded on immunocompromised patients wearing a mask, I think this defense by our surgeon general is absolute bullshit,” Krishna Komanduri, the chief of the division of transplantation and cellular therapy at the University of Miami, said.
Despite the backlash, a spokesperson for DeSantis told The Daily Beast the Republican has no plans to rescind Ladapo’s nomination. Under Florida law, Ladapo can remain in his position for up to two years even if the state Senate does not confirm him.
It remains to be seen if he will actually last that long.
“It took our new [Florida Surgeon General] (whose vaccination status is UNKNOWN) more than 2 days to explain his smug refusal to mask-up during an indoor meeting with Senator Tina Polsky, who has breast cancer. His sad excuse—he can’t ‘communicate’ with a mask on,” State Rep. Carlos Smith (D-Orlando) said Tuesday. “Florida deserves better.”